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Patriots-Ravens matchup of the day: Thursday

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Recent posts by Kevin Fishbain

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By Kevin Fishbain

Here's a key matchup to watch in the AFC championship game between the Patriots and Ravens:

Patriots TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez vs. Ravens' defense

The matchup that all Ravens fans are worried about is this one, as no team this season as found a way to stop, let alone contain, both tight ends.

The pair combined for 169 catches for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns during the regular season. Against the Broncos last weekend, Gronk had three touchdown catches to go along with 145 receiving yards. Hernandez had a receiving score and had 61 yards rushing.

In last season's meeting, the Ravens did find a way to contain the duo. Hernandez had four catches for 61 yards and Gronk had only one catch, going for 24 yards. But this was before Gronkowski emerged as the weapon he has become.

How do you slow them down? You can double Gronk, but then Hernandez will beat you. You can try to eliminate both of them, but then Wes Welker will attack the middle of the field.

The versatility of Hernandez has made it even more difficult. He can line up in the slot, as an H-back or in the backfield — and can be productive from any spot. The Pats will move both around to get favorable matchups.

The Ravens' defense has done well against opposing tight ends this season. The most yards a tight end gained against them in a game all season was Steelers TE Heath Miller, who had 73 yards. Baltimore allowed only three touchdowns to tight ends all season.

The personnel are certainly there in the middle of the field for Baltimore. MLB Ray Lewis doesn't have the coverage skills he used to, but he has great instincts and can still lay the lumber. He could be an X-factor in covering the tight ends. FS Ed Reed, who roams center field, could help eliminate the Gronk seam route that Tom Brady utilizes often. SS Bernard Pollard is better against the run, but he will also be used.

One Ravens player to keep an eye on is LB Brendon Ayanbadejo, who is known generally for his special-teams skills but has the tools to help keep the Pats' tight ends under wraps.

Teams want to knock Gronk off his route from the get-go. Brady likes to move the offense quickly, and disrupting a receiver's route throws a wrench into the team's plans.

Gronkowski and Hernandez can beat most defenders in one-on-one matchups, and Brady can pick apart a zone, so the Ravens need to be careful. Look for multiple looks from the Baltimore defense to disguise their plan.

Ultimately for the Ravens, it is key to avoid giving up a huge game to either tight end. Baltimore's physicality may be their best weapon against the pair. The Patriots need to continue to be resourceful with Gronk and Hernandez, move them around and find ways to get them involved.

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